Our Original Sins

Posted on May 07, 2016 in Washington Watch

In some of my writings, I have observed the way the US has, for centuries, absorbed countless waves of immigrants from many continents transforming them, in short order, into Americans—comparing this to the European situation which does not, as a rule, provide the same opportunities for advancement and inclusion. I have also noted that not only do new US citizens take on a new identity, but in the process of absorbing the many diverse groups who have come to our shores, the American identity, itself, has also changed. Again, this describes a process that is not generally applicable in Europe.  

This absorptive and transformative capacity of new immigrants is one of America's defining traits. It is the process that has provided the opportunity for diverse incoming groups to beat back the hateful scorn and hurtful exclusion with which they have often been greeted and, within a generation, find their place in the economic, political, and social mainstream.

It is precisely this unique characteristic that has made the experience of Arab and Muslim immigrants to America different than that which has been encountered by their compatriots who have emigrated to Europe. During the last century well over one million Arabs, Christian and Muslim, and another three-quarters of a million non-Arab Muslims have settled as immigrants in the US. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, they are not locked in ghettos, becoming an underclass. Lebanese peddlers or autoworkers, Syrian steelworkers, Yemeni farmworkers and longshoreman, Palestinian and Egyptian small merchants, and Moroccan waiters—have within a generation experienced the extraordinary social and economic upward mobility that is possible in America. They do not remain in the lower economic strata, because they find that opportunities abound in their newly adopted country.

This much is true. But there is an important caveat that must also be noted—that establishes an American parallel with Europe.

There is a dark underside to the American story. New immigrants do not find themselves locked into a "ghettoized underclass" precisely because one already exists in America—comprised of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. As a result, when new immigrants arrive they are able to jump in line ahead of these historically oppressed groups and move up the economic and social ladder. This is not the fault of the immigrants. It is the way the table has been set for them. It is America's national shame and a reality we must not ignore.

America was born in original sin—actually three different sins: the cruel genocide and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, the institution of slavery imposed on Africans, and the occupation and subjugation of Spanish-speaking lands.

I have grown weary of seeing articles comparing the experiences of recent immigrant Muslims in the US with those in the UK or France. They are not the same, at all. The third generation angry, alienated, unemployed Arabs in the ghettos surrounding Paris do not find their counterparts in the Arab American communities in the US. A closer parallel can be found in the struggling African American or Latino ghettos in many US cities. Like the North African or South Asian victims of colonial oppression who came to France or the UK seeking opportunity and became embittered as they found, instead, unemployment and systemic discrimination, African Americans who left the American South or Latinos who fled poverty in Central America, have also found their dreams denied. Like the immigrant underclass in Europe, African Americans and Latinos are over-represented among our poor, our unemployed, and our prison populations. And they present American society with a nagging reminder of the sordid chapters of our past we prefer to ignore or forget.  

Just as the British and French have failed to recognize and atone for the consequences of their shameful behaviors in South Asia and the Arab World, Americans have never come to grips with the devastating impact and lasting trauma visited upon this country's indigenous peoples, slaves, and the victims of our imperial conquest of lands to our south.  

But, in both instances, these victims of our histories live among us still waiting to be full and recognized participants in our societies. While we sometimes seek to absolve ourselves by pointing to the successes of those who made breakthroughs knocking down barriers to advancement—until we acknowledge our past injustices, include its lessons and the experiences of our victims in our self-definition, and radically transform our societies to create more fully inclusive societies, we will continue to be plagued by the consequences of our original sins.  

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates. 

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